Six of the 11 McKeesport Area High School students who sued the district and Superintendent Mark P. Holtzman Jr. were all smiles at a news conference in Duquesne on Monday evening.
Sitting alongside their attorney, Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, they talked about their hopes for the proposed McKeesport Black Student Union.
“I feel like it's a way to get young teens together and to talk about stuff that’s going on, it's a safer environment,” said Ayriauna West, a ninth-grader.
Under the terms of a settlement between the district and the students, school officials must recognize the club within 10 days as “a non-curricular student activity” and ensure the club receives “the same rights, privileges and benefits that it provides to any other non-curricular student activity.”
Ninth-grader JaSona Belyeu, another member of the proposed MBSU, thinks the club is a good idea and is glad “we're now able to have it in our school, mainly because we can all come together, all races, and be able to talk freely, with our opinions about a lot of things.”
Another member, Grace Walker said she just wants “everyone of all races to have a chance to voice their opinion in this group.”
In a statement released Monday, the district said it is “eager to move forward” and that it never opposed the creation of a Black Student Union in principle.
“We will support (students) in their choice to submit a request for a Black Student Union as a non-curricular student activity, as long as it is student-initiated,” the district said.
According to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh on April 10, students had tried for at least three months to create the club, but those efforts were “stymied at every turn” by what ACLU attorneys alleged was Holtzman’s obstruction.
A week later, the school district filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, alleging the proposed club was “fundamentally flawed” and that it violated the federal Equal Access Act as well as district policies.
The district alleged that the club was not legally constituted because it was being “directed and controlled by non-student persons and non-school organizations,” namely Take Action Mon Valley, a citizen activist group, and advisors from Penn State Greater Allegheny.
Under the terms of the settlement, persons not affiliated with the school district will not be allowed to “direct, conduct, control or regularly attend in-school activities or student groups.”
“This was never about a Black Student Union,” Holtzman said. “This was about outside control of a student group.”
Advocates for the Black Student Union, including former McKeesport City Councilwoman Fawn Walker-Montgomery, whose daughter was one of the plaintiffs, said the group would be a safe place for students to talk about racial issues, including what they allege is a lack of African-American representation on the district’s faculty.
Walker-Montgomery, who is one of the leaders of Take Action Mon Valley, also said Black students have come to her and other community leaders and complained of a "disconnect" between the student body and district officials.
“Frankly, if the school district had told them that they are not allowed to have outside groups (involved), that never would have been an issue,” Walczak said. “In fact, the students put outside groups on their application because they thought it might look good to show that they are supervised by adults.”
Walker-Montgomery is planning to run for mayor of McKeesport this fall as an independent.
District officials and Holtzman have accused Walker-Montgomery --- although not by name --- of using the controversy to get publicity for her campaign.
“This complaint began with a candidate for public office’s effort to create a platform to push a political agenda among students,” Holtzman said last week.
Walczak said there are hundreds of Black Student Unions in high schools across the nation, as well as a Black Student Association at the University of Pittsburgh and a Black Student Union at Penn State.
“This is not a pioneering effort in terms of creating one of these clubs inside of a school district, it's just the latest example,” he said. All students at McKeesport Area School District who have an interest in race relations will be welcomed, regardless of their own ethnicity, Walczak said.
“Absolutely everybody is welcome to come and participate in the club and join in the conversation,” he said.
Walczak said he’s confident his clients would have prevailed at trial. “It seems not only unfair and unjust, but pretty clearly illegal to not allow these students to form their club,” he said.
In a press release, the school district called it “unfortunate” that it was “forced to waste valuable educational resources that should have been allocated for our students’ continued success” to defend itself against the lawsuit.
Holtzman said in a written statement that he and Tia Wanzo, assistant superintendent, “look forward to working with our students to develop their ideas and support a Black Student Union or any organization that encourages their development.”
Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who covers news from McKeesport Area School District and North Versailles Twp. for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published May 01, 2019.